I’ve been sort of amazed at the response to my review of Asylum of the Daleks. The feedback/comments/reblogs I’ve had have been overwhelmingly positive, which is awesome - still, I’ve had a few people dropping by or reblogging solely to tell me that the points I’ve made against the episode, or more specifically my objections to the Daleks, are totally wrong, and so therefore my entire argument sucks, and also I know nothing about Doctor Who. And the thing is, while I don’t particularly care what strangers on the internet think of me or my fandom cred or whatever, I do care about precision of language and setting my points out clearly - and given that the majority of people who’ve written in to correct my views on Daleks have all rebutted (or at least, seemed to be rebutting) an opinion I don’t actually hold, I’m going to assume that, aside from the inevitable difference caused by their liking something I hated, I’ve also expressed myself badly.
The Doctor Who canon is undeniably a big, confusing, jumbly ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey contradictions and retcons. That’s part of its charm: the show has been around for nigh on fifty years, so that even without the extended canonical glory of endless tie-in books, comics, games and extras, the show itself is teeming with myriad different interpretations and data. Which is awesome! It means that old ideas can be reinvented even as new ones are introduced, ensuring that pretty much nothing is off-limits. As a consequence, the background continuity of the Whoniverse well and truly borked - but that’s not the same as saying that continuity doesn’t matter, or that changing it doesn’t have consequences. Quite the opposite, in fact: because if everything can potentially be overwritten, then why should anything matter?
The writers on Doctor Who need to work harder than normal to ensure the audience retains a willing suspension of disbelief, because the Whoniverse draws its structural integrity primarily from thematic - as opposed to literal - continuity. Which isn’t to say that the two aren’t interrelated (they are) or that changing one will have no effect on the other (it will). Rather, it means that, every time something is retconned, the show runs the risk of invalidating, overwriting and/or devaluing the themes, character development and emotion of previous episodes by effectively eliding the events which lead to them in the first place. By and large, fans come to Doctor Who for cool ideas, emotive feels, great characters and awesome adventures, not seamless worldbuilding - but thanks to narrative interconnectedness, too little of the latter can seriously undermine the former, which is why, despite the show’s long and fractured continuity, maintaining it still matters.
Or, to put it another way: you might think that continuity isn’t important, but if the Doctor suddenly fixed that broken chameleon circuit and the TARDIS stopped looking like a police box, I guarantee you’d be pretty fucking pissed - not because it’s impossible within the scope of the Whoniverse, but because it’s disrespectful to the history of the show. The TARDIS police box is iconic: take it away, and you erase something fundamental. Obviously that’s an extreme example, but the point is, while it would technically only constitute a cosmetic change - the Doctor could still do everything he usually does, just in a differently shaped TARDIS - it would also undermine his established personality and preferences, to say nothing of making us question the motives and comprehension of the writers. Because frequently, purely cosmetic changes aren’t: they also tell us something about the direction a show is headed, the priorities of the writers, and just how important (or not) they think certain parts of the canon are.
Which brings me to the Daleks, and why Asylum so thoroughly angered me, not just as an episode in its own right, but as an example of Steven Moffat’s work. Yes, it’s annoying the Daleks on show were the wrong type to have been rebuilt since Victory, because it undermines the only possible excuse for their being so numerous; yes, it’s annoying that Skaro was even mentioned, because it’s a hugely important planet with a complicated history that deserves more of a reintroduction than a single, unexplained reference; and yes, it’s annoying that the Daleks were suddenly using human corpses as puppets, because it’s an unnecessary development that begs far more and important questions than it answers. All of that got under my skin, not because it was retconned at all, but because it was retconned badly: which is to say, done in such a way as to make the show’s continuity even more ambiguous than it already was, and seemingly for no better reason than that “Steven Moffat thought it looked cool, plus the new coloured Daleks inspired near-universal loathing, so we’re going to write them out of the story without any explanation even though it totally makes Victory redundant”.
That’s not the real problem. The real problem - aside from the hideous fail of Amy and Rory’s offscreen divorce, the Doctor’s magical efforts at fixing it, Amy being damselled again, Rory’s nice guy “I love you more” declaration, the idea of Oswin’s queerness being “just a phase” mentioned only to make her seem hotter, the nonsensical WTFery of her opera music and human voice coming from a Dalek body, her status as yet another of Moffat’s perky-pretty-flirty-quirky female companions, and the general dull repetition of people running through corridors - the real problem is the fact that everything in the episode serves to alter and undermine the Doctor’s character as established since the reboot. Because while RTD was far from perfect, he at least made an effort to acknowledge the continuity as it existed before him: he winked at Douglas Adams; brought back old enemies like the Cybermen, the Macra and the Master; and acknowledged that the Doctor had a personal history which predated his own embellishments, so that we heard about earlier figures like his family, the Major, UNIT, Sarah Jane and K9.
And Moffat… hasn’t done any of that. With the result that, in Asylum, the Doctor never stops to see if Darla can be saved; never asks why the Daleks are using human puppets; never asks what happened to the new, superior Daleks from Victory; never wonders about their Parliament, even though its existence implies a species of democracy; never questions their commitment to genetic purity in light of their human puppets; never contemplates whether the accessibility/return of Skaro might also mean the same for Gallifrey; never rails against the Dalek numbers; never suspects Oswin might be anything other than human; never tries to rescue her, despite her intact soul, because she looks like a Dalek; doesn’t feel any sense of loss or fear or anger at the Daleks having forgotten him, despite the fact that he used their awe of him as a weapon; never mourned Oswin’s death; never tried to talk her out her staying behind; never asked why Amy saw humans instead of Daleks while undergoing conversion; never explained why he didn’t need the anti-nanite bracelet; never wondered where the asylum planet came from or how it remained intact through the Time War; never mentioned the Time War in any sense; never expressed distaste for killing; never exhibited any intellectual curiosity; never, in fact, did anything even vaguely in keeping with his character as established by every writer prior to Moffat, and all because Moffat doesn’t give a shit about continuity, whether thematic, literal or otherwise.
That’s why Asylum is a terrible episode: because it retcons both the Doctor himself and his feelings towards the Daleks while making both his personal history and characterisation subordinate to Shit That Looks Cool At The Time.
So, yeah. About that.
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